Pacific Rim pleasures

Take the plunge into a world of brilliant flavors.

Stir Fried 311 (photo credit: from "Sensational Pasta" by Faye Levy; photo deGen)
Stir Fried 311
(photo credit: from "Sensational Pasta" by Faye Levy; photo deGen)
When describing the supreme pleasure that can come from enjoying a good meal, Alexandra Greeley, author of Asian Soups, Stews and Curries, wrote: “People hooked on Asian foods stand the best chance of finding that state of bliss, for Asian cooking has it all.”
She recommends that those hesitant about eating Asian foods “shed notions that Oriental ingredients and meals are too unfamiliar,” and start with small steps, for example, preparing a simple corn and chicken soup.
“From this humble beginning, take that final plunge into a world of brilliant flavors – often hot, usually complex and always well conceived.
Rejoice in the sensual beauty of foods... that present a spectrum of crunchy textures offset by the smoothness of cooked rice or the suppleness of rice noodles; and that meld both complementary and contrasting colors for eye appeal.”
The following menu of easy-to-prepare recipes is a pleasant introduction to Pacific Rim flavors. There’s no need to stick to the culinary repertoire of one country. The region on the western side of the Pacific Ocean shares many delicious flavors, from ginger to soy sauce to rice wine. Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino restaurants often feature Chinese dishes too.
The dinner begins with a simple green salad with a sesame oil dressing and the delicate crunch of toasted cashews. The Thai-inspired chicken entree is slightly hot, but the heat of the chilies is toned down a bit by the fresh taste of basil. If you serve the chicken with the green or red chilies for color, remind the diners that they are hot. Set a bottle of Asian pepper sauce on the table for those who like their food really pungent.
Steamed jasmine rice is a fine accompaniment for the chicken, but angel-hair pasta or Asian wheat or rice noodles provide a pleasing alternative. The noodles in our menu are enlivened by common Chinese vegetables available in supermarkets – water chestnuts, baby corn and snow peas – and flavored with garlic, ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil.
For an easy, refreshing dessert that balances the bold flavors of the main course, combine diced fresh or canned pineapple with another fruit, such as melon cubes or kiwi slices. Sprinkle the fruit with a mixture of rum or sherry, sugar and a bit of water or pineapple juice; for 4 cups of fruit, you’ll need about 1 tablespoon of each of the dressing elements.
Instead of the cashews, you can use roasted peanuts or almonds, or even the slightly sweet Chinese style pecans that you can find at the supermarket. You can use plain or seasoned rice vinegar in the dressing.
2 cups iceberg lettuce, chopped in bite-size pieces, or iceberg lettuce mix with shredded red cabbage and carrots
2 cups spinach leaves or romaine, in bite-size pieces
11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1⁄2 to 1 tsp. Asian sesame oil (optional)
11⁄2 to 2 tsp. rice vinegar, or more to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup toasted salted cashews
In a salad bowl toss lettuce with spinach. Add vegetable oil, sesame oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve sprinkled with cashews.
Makes 4 servings.
Basil is identified with Italian cuisine but is popular in the Thai kitchen too, especially in dishes with chilies. In this dish the hot peppers are left in large pieces, so they can flavor and garnish the dish, and can easily be removed by those who do not want to eat them. Remove the seeds from the hot peppers if you want to tone down their heat.
You can make this entree with dark or white chicken meat, or substitute turkey, which is the leanest choice. Cutting the chicken in strips ensures speedy cooking and better coating with the seasonings.
To get ahead, mince the garlic for this dish and for the noodle dish together.
450 gr. boneless skinless chicken
31⁄2 to 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large onion, halved lengthwise, cut in thin lengthwise slices
2 green onions, chopped
1 sweet red or yellow pepper, cut in 1-cm. strips, then halved crosswise
2 fresh red or green hot peppers, halved lengthwise
1⁄2 cup chicken broth
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste
1 cup whole fresh basil leaves
Hot pepper sauce (optional)
Cut chicken in 7.5-cm. x 6 mm. x 6 mm. strips.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add sliced onion and sweet and hot peppers and saute, stirring, about 7 minutes or until onion browns lightly; it may still be a bit crunchy. Transfer to a bowl.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over high heat. Add chicken and saute, stirring, for 1 minute or until it changes color, about 1 minute. Do not overcook. With a slotted spoon or slotted spatula, transfer chicken to onions.
Add remaining 1⁄2 to 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over medium-low heat. Add garlic and green onions and saute for 1⁄2 minute. Add broth and soy sauce and heat through. Return chicken and vegetables to pan and toss over low heat for about 1⁄2 minute to reheat. Add basil leaves.
Taste, and add more soy sauce or hot pepper sauce if desired. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Vary the vegetables in this recipe to your taste. Add or substitute Chinese cabbage, canned bamboo shoots, white mushrooms, green onions or zucchini strips for any of the vegetables. If you’d like to use rice noodles, use a 180-gram package and remember that the thin ones cook in only 11⁄2 minutes and should be removed from the hot water immediately.
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
60 gr. green beans, each cut in three, or frozen snow peas, thawed (1⁄2 cup)
225 gr. whole water chestnuts, rinsed and drained
30 gr. dried shiitake mushrooms (about 10 large), soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
350 gr. dried Chinese wheat noodles or vermicelli pasta
5 to 7 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 to 4 Tbsp. soy sauce
3 Tbsp. rice wine or dry sherry
1⁄2 tsp. sugar
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes or hot pepper paste, or to taste
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 to 4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 tsp. minced peeled gingerroot (optional)
a small can baby corn, rinsed (optional)
2 tsp. Asian sesame oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, if desired
Cook carrot slices and green beans (but not snow peas) in water to cover for 6 minutes or until just tender. Cut each water chestnut in 2 rounds.
Remove soaked mushrooms from water, rinse and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Cut off tough stems; discard or save them to flavor stocks. Quarter caps.
Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring often with a fork, for 3 to 8 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with 1 or 2 tablespoons oil.
For sauce: Combine 3 tablespoons soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and pepper flakes in a bowl and mix well. Stir in 1⁄2 cup broth.
Heat a wok or large deep skillet. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add garlic and gingerroot and saute for 10 seconds. Add carrots and cook for 1 minute.
Add mushrooms, green beans or snow peas, water chestnuts and baby corn and cook, tossing, 1 minute. Add half the sauce and bring to a boil, stirring. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes, adding a few tablespoons broth if mixture is dry. Transfer mixture to a bowl.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat over medium heat. Add noodles and heat for 1⁄2 minute. Add remaining sauce mixture and heat, tossing with two wooden spoons, until noodles are hot, adding a little more broth if they need moistening. Remove from heat, sprinkle with sesame oil and toss. Add to bowl of vegetables and toss to combine. Taste, and add more soy sauce, salt and pepper sauce if desired. Serve noodles on hot plates, spooning some of the vegetables on top.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.